Years ago, before The Wire, the only reference of Baltimore I had was repeat childhood viewings of John Waters’ Hairspray. I never really wanted to see the show as the film, starring Rikki Lake, Divine, Jerry Stiller, Debbie Harry and many more, was so iconic and superbly cast I didn’t know what a musical would do to it. Silly, really. Hairspray is absolutely perfect musical fodder when you think about it.
Beautifully vivid characters, an overwhelming positivity, perfectly envisioned nostalgia and Americana, Hairspray is the chirpy tale of teenage life in the 60s, fitting in with the changing times and embracing life.
Tracy Turnblad (last night played by understudy Dina Tree) is a big girl who dreams of appearing on the local dance TV programme, the Corny Collins show. Fighting sizeism, school hierarchy and eventually segregation, it tackles social problems of the day with charm and song. Nerdy best mate Penny is a joy, and the cast just exude energy and fun throughout.
The Liverpool show, as anyone who has seen it will tell you, belongs to Michael Starke as Edna Turnblad, played by Divine in the original film, and later Michael Ball in the West End. An absolute joy whenever he’s on stage, he’s not as acerbic as Divine and all the better for it. A showstopper of a performance, it will surely go down in Liverpool legend as Starke (surely putting the ghost of Sinbad to bed) revealed considerable hidden talent in range and voice. In partnership with Les Dennis as husband Wilbur, their duet as a loving couple, Timeless to Me, complete with the fun of with a genuine-looking fit of the giggles, was one of the theatre treats of the year. The kitschy, colourful set adds to the lively atmosphere, a real cut above most other productions and turning the Empire stage into cartoony, 2D streets or record shops as needed.
Last night was a gala and press night performance, which can sometimes distort or stifle an audience reaction – but with the end of breakout song You Can’t Stop the Beat there was a genuine, practically 100% standing ovation throughout the theatre. An utterly definitive feel-good show, the audience left feeling they had been privy to something very special indeed. The celebratory after party, well, that was another story…